Transcript from an interview with Jack Gantos

Below is an edited transcript from Reading Rockets' interview with Jack Gantos. The transcript is divided into the following sections:

Jack Gantos

Lifelong renters

I went to ten schools in twelve grades, which is a lot of schools. And we moved around a lot in different houses. We were renters. We were lifelong renters. Lifelong renters come with their own sort of obsessive moves. My dad had — the grass was always greener on the other side. We're moving from place to place to place. And then my mom had — the rental house is greener on the other side. Even within the same neighborhood, we could possibly shift homes, you know. You had a little bit of that.

What comes with it are good things and not-so-good things. But one of the good things that comes from it is that you meet a lot of people. You're coming and going all of the time, and you have to find out how to be with people. If you're going to make friends quickly, you have to have some skills for doing this. You have to face up to people. You being able to tell stories, or talk — you know, you can't just be like the new kid who walks silently to a person's door and knocks and doesn't say anything. You've got to have a shtick, so that really helped, you know, to get some personality going.

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Dear Diary

My sister had a journal, a little diary, and she would write in it. I was kind of a copycat — like a younger brother type and so I would watch her. And I thought, "Dang, she's so good at that." Then I thought, "Well, if I read it, I'll probably be as smart as she is," because she was always smarter than me.

And I did read it. I read her diary. It was a terrible, unethical thing to do, but I was compelled. I read it, and it wasn't terribly interesting to me. I'm not trying to run my sister down, but it seemed to me that she was missing all the richness of life. Here we were moving from western Pennsylvania to Cape Hatteras to Barbados to St. Lucia to Miami. You know, lots going on! All these neighborhoods we would live in, all these crazy characters, and none of that made the diary.

I thought, "That's really peculiar, because the world I'm living with and in is really interesting."

I got a diary, and I started keeping notes. I started trying to set the diaries up in such a way that they would help me get started. Because when you look at that blank page and you put that on the desk, or open a diary, it's really hard. It's intimidating. It's begging you to improve upon it. And it's hard, every time you put that pencil down, you sort of sully the page.

So, then I did this thing. First, I'm a reader. You know, I was a good reader. I'd read Harriet the Spy, and Harriet the Spy had a diary, and she walked around the neighborhood spying on everyone. And I thought, "That is the greatest job in the world. I want that job: spy". Because I was good at looking in windows.

I went out and I got a big sheet of paper, and I drew a spy map of my neighborhood and then I started drawing where everything interesting happened. You know, the low-supervision family over here; my family; where my dog was eaten by an alligator in Florida, and where the other one was hit by a car; where the third one dug a hole, ran around the house, fell in, and broke his neck. We buried him in the hole he dug. Little things like that, and all that kind of stuff.

And I would write. I would open it up, see that map and knew right away that I could focus on those stories and write those stories.

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Rotten Ralph

Rotten Ralph is a big, red cat. Runs around on two hind legs and has an owner named Sarah, and Sarah's very sweet and kind and thoughtful and sympathetic. And Ralph, of course, has very little conscience. He's momentarily contrite from time to time, and he just is, like, that kind of out of control cat. He forgets to be good.

So I had this cat. First off, let me just back up. Before I wrote Ralph, Nicole Rubel, who is the illustrator of the Rotten Ralph book, is a fabulous illustrator. She was at the Museum School of Fine Arts in Boston. I was at Emerson College in Boston. I'm getting my degree in writing. She's doing her art thing. We meet at a party. We decide we both like children's literature, so we decide to make these little dummy books and get them published.

Right off the bat, I'm writing the world's worst books. You know, I'm writing, like, A Visit to Grandmother's House. A little girl takes a plant to the grandmother. They dust the plant. They water the plant. They name the plant. They plant the plant.

Turned down. It's all rejected. I'm like, "Gee, that's a genius book. How'd that happen?" you know.

Finally, after, oh, probably a dozen well-deserved rejections, I thought, "Well," you know, "I might as well just swing my cat," you know, "and be me." I wanted to write a book about a cat, so I thought, "Well, there's this rule in writing called write about what you know about." I thought, "Okay. I'll get a cat."

Now, I'm living in a rooming house. I live in one room. It's about ten feet long, about five feet wide, and that's it. Right there. In a rooming house on Marlboro Street in Boston.

I open up the Boston Globe, go to the pet section. There's cats, you know, cat giveaway. It's from Harvard University, you know. Got to get rid of a nice cat. I'm like, "Oh, I might as well get a smart one."

I call the people. They're from Australia. They've had this cat. They've finished their degree, and they're moving back. I go and get the cat. To make a long story short, the cat is a sociopathic, vicious animal. It never liked me. I mean that cat, no matter where he was in that room, could leap and really sink his nails into me.

I'm sitting in the room. I've got this vicious thing scratching on my leg, just hating me. He never liked anyone. Of course, I never had anyone over because the room was so pathetic. I thought, you know, "Instead of writing about sweet fluffy," you know, "I'm gonna go the other way".

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The first contract

I take Rotten Ralph to the first one, Atlantic Monthly, and finally she reads it, and she looks at me, and she goes, "Never come back here again." I walked out of there, and I thought, "Dang! I'm getting better." You know? Because you just felt like, "What?" If it revolted them that much, something's working — right?

Then I took it up the hill to Atlantic — no, to Little, Brown at the top of Beacon Hill. I showed it to the editor, and he read it. It just wasn't for him.

Then we took it to Houghton Mifflin and Walter Lorraine, who was just retiring. He's 80 years old. He's retiring. And he's still there. And he read it, and he went, "I like the cat. I like this part. Write a new story." I was like, "Wow. That's the most encouragement I've ever had."

I went home, and I wrote a brand new story, like, overnight, took it back. He went, "Like that line. Like that line. Like that line. Get rid of the rest. And keep these lines. Write a new one."

I must've done that 50 times. I swear it took the whole summer. I would just rewrite furiously every night. Finally at the end of the summer, he said, "You know what? I think you need a contract for this." We finally got a contract for it. And, boy, that was the first book.

I remember standing on Park Street in Boston, right by the Boston Common, which I walk by that way every day on my way to the library. I look at that spot on the street where I was just, like, dancing in the middle of the street, jumping up and down. It still feels that good every time I see it. All that hard work, all that revision, all that thinking, all that goal chasing, you know, was totally, totally worth it.

So, that's where Ralph came from.

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"Writing is thinking on paper. " — William Zinsser